[Published originally in the September 2005 edition of Computing Research News, Vol. 17/No. 4]
Computing Research Gains Congressional Focus
By Peter Harsha
The concerns of computing researchers about the overall underinvestment in the federal IT research portfolio—and specific concerns about DARPA’s steady withdrawal from long-term IT research, especially in universities—have gained new prominence in Congress thanks to a series of recent news reports, studies and congressional actions. That attention has so far culminated in a hearing of the full House Science Committee on the future of computer science research in the United States and questions about the implications of the shift in the overall landscape for federal support of computing research. As Congress works to set the funding levels for federal science agencies in fiscal year 2006, it remains to be seen whether the increased focus will result in increases in funding for IT research, but the increased attention has put some federal agencies and the Administration on the defensive.
While the computing research community has been working over the past several years to focus attention on what it sees as a significant shift in the federal IT research portfolio away from fundamental, long-term research toward shorter-term, development-related research, getting traction for those concerns on the Hill and in the Administration has been slow going until recently. In March, the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC)—a committee sympathetic to the community’s concerns, especially as they related to DARPA, an agency under the committee’s jurisdiction—posed a question to DARPA Director Anthony Tether aimed at getting data on DARPA’s current and historical support for IT research at universities. The committee was responding to a request from the community to get actual data—the anecdotal evidence for DARPA’s withdrawal from support for university IT research was strong, but without actual numbers it was difficult to advance the issue further in Congress or in the press.
DARPA responded by noting that its support for IT research overall, for both universities and in industry, had been fairly consistent, averaging about $580 million in constant dollars over the past five years. DARPA support for university-led IT research, however, had fallen considerably over the same period—from $214 million in FY 2001 to $123 million in FY 2004. DARPA cited five “factors for the decline:”
To the computing community, DARPA’s response was a concession that the agency’s focus in IT research is increasingly short term (at least in the unclassified realm) and that universities are no longer significant performers of DARPA IT research (classified or unclassified). In essence, DARPA’s response validated the arguments the community had been making since 2001, but had only anecdotal evidence to prove.
DARPA’s answers to the question posed by SASC found their way to New York Times reporter John Markoff, who had been interested in writing a story on the issue. Markoff’s resulting article, “Pentagon Redirects Research Dollars” (originally titled “A Blow to Computer Science Research” in early versions of the Times) raised the profile of the community’s concerns dramatically and spawned coverage by a number of other newspapers and columnists, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, columnist Thomas Friedman, San Jose Mercury News, Seattle Post Intelligencer, columnist Norman Ornstein, Morton Kondracke in Roll Call, the Los Angeles Times, and Business Week. The coverage in the national press also led Science Magazine to solicit an editorial from Edward Lazowska, Chair of the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC) and University of Washington professor, and Dave Patterson, member of PITAC, President of ACM, and UC Berkeley professor, on the issue, which ran in the May 6, 2005, edition of the magazine.
At the same time, PITAC was making the rounds on Capitol Hill, briefing key members of Congress on the findings of its recently released report Cyber Security R&D: A Crisis of Prioritization. That report noted that the federal government was dangerously underinvested in civilian cyber security R&D—especially at the National Science Foundation—and that policies at agencies like DARPA and the Department of Homeland Security were significantly limiting the participation of the academic community (DARPA) or not placing sufficient emphasis on cyber security R&D, given the threat it poses to the nation’s critical infrastructures and citizens (DHS). Buttressing their case was a February 2005 report of the Defense Science Board (DSB) on High-performance Microprocessor Supply, which noted in an appendix that the changes at DARPA and DOD had impacted the agency’s long-term mission. Citing the increasing disengagement of DARPA from support of long-term research at universities, the board concluded DOD was suffering the effects:
“Historically, the rapid rate of growth in U.S. microchip capability resulted from a robust national portfolio of long-term research that incorporated both incremental and revolutionary components,” the report noted. “Industry excelled in evolutionary technology developments that resulted in reduced costs, higher quality and reliability and vastly improved performance. DOD now is no longer perceived as being seriously involved in—or even taking steps to ensure that others are conducting—research to enable the embedded processing proficiency on which its strategic advantage depends. This withdrawal has created a vacuum where no part of the U.S. government is able to exert leadership, especially with respect to the revolutionary component of the research portfolio.”
The combination of PITAC efforts, federal studies, and media coverage helped to convince Congress to examine the issue. On May 12, 2005, the full membership of the House Science Committee convened a hearing on “The Future of Computer Science Research in the U.S.” The committee called as witnesses John Marburger, the Director of OSTP, Tony Tether, William Wulf, President of the National Academy of Engineering, and Tom Leighton, co-Founder and Chief Scientist of Akamai Industries and a member of PITAC.
The computing community  also provided written testimony for the hearing, examining how the United States came to assume its dominant position in IT and the benefits that role conveys to the nation; why the changing landscape for federal support of computing research imperils U.S. leadership in IT and, in turn, U.S. economic performance in the coming decades; and lastly, what the community believes should be done to shore up that leadership.
The focus of the hearing was less a broad look at the overall federal IT R&D portfolio and more a review of DARPA’s declining support for university IT R&D. After hearing Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) and ranking Democrat Lincoln Davis (D-TN) open the hearing with strong words of support for the computing research community’s position and expressing serious concerns about DARPA’s direction, Tether defended his agency, noting that if DARPA was withdrawing from support of university IT research, it was because they were favoring a “multidisciplinary approach” to funding now—a slightly different answer than he provided to the same question posed by SASC.
In the end, he said, he saw a lot of “hand-wringing from the computing community,” but not much input about what his agency should be doing. Coming at the very end of the hearing, this comment inspired Boehlert to turn to Wulf and Leighton and ask whether they were up to the challenge of identifying areas of research currently undersupported at DARPA, and could they respond to both the committee and Tether in writing? Both Wulf and Leighton said they would be happy to provide answers.
The hearing raised enough concerns in the minds of the Science Committee membership that Chairman Boehlert pledged to “remain engaged” in the issue, hoping to use his committee—which lacks jurisdiction over DARPA—as “an honest broker” between the agency and the computing community.
The Science Committee staff has already followed through on a part of that engagement pledge, meeting separately with the House Armed Services Committee—the committee with jurisdiction over DARPA and one that has proven unsympathetic to the community’s concerns in the recent past—and securing a commitment from them to meet with representatives of the computing community to discuss these concerns.
In the Senate, the attention has led to the introduction in late July of two amendments to the pending FY 2006 Defense Authorization bill—one that would increase the authorization for fundamental computer science research at DARPA, and another that would task DSB with looking at what DARPA must do to attract better talent, build a strong base with the best university minds, and build an R&D portfolio of “the first technical importance.” The amendments should be before the Senate after Labor Day.
As all of these efforts move forward, and IT research continues to receive consideration at the highest levels, check the Computing Research Policy Blog (http://www.cra.org/govaffairs/blog) for the latest news.
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